Posted by: nedpelger | February 24, 2010

Beauty of Biography

In 1750, Samuel Johnson noted that almost every person that’s lived could be the subject of a useful biography. I love that idea.  He writes, “We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire and seduced by pleasure.” The fact that we share so much with other humans means we have much to learn from them.

My Dad taught me to try to treat everyone I meet with dignity and respect (though still having a good time with them) because everyone has something to teach me. I’ve failed at this often, but when I succeed I’m generally rewarded.

I’ve taken to reading a short essay every morning from the Oxford Book of Essays. You can read this morning’s essay by Samuel Johnson titled Dignity and Uses of Biography by following the link. Besides the encouragement to learn from those I meet, the essay also prompted me to start reading more biographies.

Johnson writes, “No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful.”

Do you ever read biographies? Whatever topic interests you, find a related biography and give it a try. I’ve been so moved by several biographies over the years, gaining insight into a specific person, humanity and myself.

What’s the favorite biography you’ve read? What might you consider reading? Please consider actually answering these questions in the comment section. This blog will be much more fun if we get some dialogue going.

As for me, I was most moved by the Peter the Great biography by Robert Massie. I think I’ll read The Last American Man next.

What about you?


  1. I loved Dick Feynman’s Adventures of a Curious Character and Harpo Marx’s autobiography. Franklin’s was interesting too but he held himself and others to a very strict standard.

  2. “Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” by Robert Caro. Aside from the fact that Caro won a Pulitzer for it, this is just a phenomenal read.

    Caro provides true insight into a tragically flawed, later-to-be president, who most people only think of in terms of Vietnam or Civil Rights.

    The best feature of Caro’s writing on Johnson is that he pulls no punches. Despite Johnson’s championing of civil rights, and the overall good he did for that cause, he was, often, a cheating, incredibly bigoted, egomanic. His favorite style of communication was yelling, followed only by passive-aggressive intimidation (when he couldn’t get away with yelling), and he stole enough elections to make Diebold jealous.

    But, at the end of the day, no one can argue that he didn’t do exactly what he set out to do: further a cause that he believed in. Regardless of politics or profession, I think that’s something to which we can all aspire and admire.

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